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8:43am on Wednesday, 20th March, 2013:

Dusting off the Old


In the olde days, MUDs were free — literally, in that we didn't charge any money to play them. When we did charge for them, we went with the fairest revenue model: per-hour charging. The more you play, the more you should pay, right?

The per-hour charging rate was replaced by a subscription model. It turned out that people would rather pay more, knowing there was a limit, than pay less but have a clock ticking in the background. Subscription is now being replaced by free-to-play, on the basis that you can nickel-and-dime a few people with more money than sense foir the benefit of the rest.

As an analogy, consider petroleum gasoline: car fuel. The way it works, you buy fuel up front and then the more you drive around, the more you use. When you run out, you buy some more. That's the per-hour charging model.

The subscription model has you pay a big fee up front, but then you can drive around as much as you like. People who drive a lot love this as it's less expensive for them. Most people would drive less than they've paid for, but if the only other option is not to drive at all, well, they'd have to pay if they wanted to drive. We have Road Tax in the UK that works like this: you have to pay a certain amount merely to have permission to drive your car on the road for the next year.

Free-to-play is where you're given your fuel for free, but there's road pricing. You can drive on the back roads for free, but if you want to get onto the trunk roads you have to pay. You get your fuel for free because enough people go onto the trunk roads to subsidise the fuel for everyone. The people who pay to use the trunk roads wouldn't have to do it if there weren't so many people on the back roads.

Now although governments can tax fuel, cars and roads, they have a monopoly. MMO developers don't, although they can mix economies a little (F2P fits in with subscription and per-hour charging).

The problem you get with F2P is that not all those people on the back roads are having fun. They don't get to where they want to go as quickly as they might, and although some like the scenery, it doesn't go past very quickly. It's especially not fun for people who want to get to their destination before everyone else if they can see other people zooming past on the trunk road. It feels a little too much like cheating.

Back in the per-hour charging days, it could cost $12 an hour to play a MUD. That would make no sense these days, but what if the price were, say 10 cents an hour? That would be within everyone's grasp. If you played for 5 hours every day for a month, it would only cost you $15; if you didn't play at all, it would cost you nothing. That would be fair. It wouldn't be free, but it would be so close as to make no difference for most people. Would an MMO that charged 10c an hour attract players?

There are some people who see it as a binary proposition. It's either free or costly. In their view, 1c an hour is too much in comparison with free. They don't care about the other benefits they might get from having a non-free game (universally wider roads for all): if it's not free, they wouldn't play it.

Other people might think OK, well 10c isn't free exactly, but it's pretty close. So long as there's an inactivity disconnection, so that if you died at the keyboard your relatives who found your body 3 months later wouldn't have a $200 bill to pay, 10c an hour is practically nothing. These people would pay. Presumably, though, having accepted the principle that it's OK to pay, you could probably charge more than 10c an hour. Would 20c work? 25c? Or is 10c too high but 5c wouldn't be?

Per-hour charging for MMOs is the fairest way to pay for playing. Such a shame that it can't be spun as being "free".

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Copyright © 2013 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).